Imagine no Imagination


End of Term Sermon at Derryvolgie 2001

There are two mindsets mingled among us, one with another, here tonight. Tangibly we are not of these stories but unseen these stories blow constantly across our lives to influence the way we see our worldview. Now we would claim a Christian worldview. However, that worldview always sits underneath the overriding umbrella of the spirit of the age. Much as we think we are standing in some gap against the spirit of the age as a radical alternative to it, we fool ourselves if we do not think that our Christian worldview is not pulled and pushed and shaped by the bully that is our contemporary culture.

Tonight we all come with a Christian worldview but depending on your age then you’ll have pieced together that view from two quite different cultural perspectives. The more mature among us are seeing Christianity through a “modernity” perspective. Modernity has been shaping our culture and our faith for some three hundred years, some would say since around the time Columbus discovered America. It came out of the days of superstition when suddenly with the advancement of science humans began to really discover what was going on in the Universe. A little bit like biting the fruit of the tree of knowledge, however, humans were suddenly feeling that they were God and that they could now by knowledge and rational thinking understand themselves and the world and progress towards some kind of humanistic holy perfection. Advances in science would eradicate sickness, tragedy and war.

Of course the Church argued vociferously against much of the new air of thinking. God cannot be pushed out and so evolution, which seemed to be the birth of a Godless explanation of the world was bitterly contested. Sin was not going to be eradicated by human progress. Only the cross could achieve the change that humans needed to be able to improve anything. Christians thus became disillusioned with any idea of progress as our sinfulness pretty much left us as Calvin described it totally depraved and we should get used the doom and gloom that that meant.

What in essence happened was that Christians started to stand up against the specifics of modernity but swallowed hook line and sinker the whole of it; the spirit of it. Chewed up evolution but swallowed to deep in our hearts the scientific lenses that created it. Thus theology threw out, like science was doing, all the unexplainable, all the irrational, all the mysterious. Unless we could explain it we couldn’t believe it. For Christianity that was a huge loss. Much more dangerous to the central tenets of our faith than evolution ever was or will be. Theology became like science, water tight with neat and seamless conclusions. God lost his mystery and any sense that he might surprise us. We had Him boxed. Fully explained. We had the whole wardrobe described. The hem of his garment was far from enough in this new world of words being enough. Doctrine was systematic. Sussed. Most of us over 40 and certainly over 45 have lived under such a think-track going on around us as we formulate our ideas of life and God.

The under 40s and the younger that you are the more so, have been pulled and pushed and shaped by another worldview entirely. By the 1960s there was more than a little disillusionment with modernity. The population of what has been described as Generation X was becoming increasingly aware of the failures of modernity. The promised progress of decades and even centuries had not only failed to fulfil but had only enabled us through science and knowledge to drop atomic bombs in Japanese cities and kill one another better, leave two thirds of the world in stark deprivation and holes all around the ozone layer that was leading us to all kinds of environmental apocalyptic catastrophe.

So the younger generation rebelled and became nihilistic – there ain’t no future; cynical - there was a more than dubious past; hedonistic – eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. With this disillusionment being complimented by the inroads made by media over kill in television, radio, music and cinema this generation believe different things and even correlate ideas in a whole different way. In his book Amusing Ourselves To Death Neil Postman concludes that those who learn and acquire information by words in linear form use a different part of their brain than those who imbibe most of its knowledge through moving pictures and images. The former are using the objective side of their brain and the latter the subjective.

That changes a lot of stuff and it is the work of the Church in this third millennium to catch the dilemma and see how to react. It effects the sharing of truth whether in teaching or evangelism and it effects our pastoral care. I guess I have somehow been more aware of such things this year than before and am trying to make some sense of the issues it raises.

The first problem to deal with is which is right or wrong. There has been a lot of sensational Christian books and sermons dealing with the great threat of postmodernity. I would not want to deny that we need a careful and biblical critique of postmodernity but what I have read and heard and fear is that we are inspecting this new worldview through the microscopic lenses of modernity without realising that it too is a faulty perspective that needs critique. We have of course been intermarried with this pagan world view of modernity for so long that it is become a loved part of the family and we need to see it for what it is. The conclusion we seek is not which is or is not Christian but what aspects of both are of benefit to our thinking of faith and which aspects are a danger and a peril to Biblical living.

Postmodernity as we have already said heads down an anything goes existentialist highway that ends up a few miles down it as a vague you cannot believe just anything so much a s you actually must believe everything. Everything that is accept something specific. That flies in the face of Christianity, which has central tenets of truth. We also stand against the hopelessness of the future and indeed will not be getting rid of the past because we who believe in Jesus believe that we are part of a story that started way back at the beginning of time and that God somehow relates to the unfolding. By faith we climb on this story that has a past and gives us a more than hopeful future. And one of the roles we need to bring into this postmodern world is the telling of this story that the disillusioned might jump onto a carriage of the salvation train with us.

What needs to be spelled out, and I am not sure is being, is the benefits that post modernity brings to Christian understanding. Modernity in its obsession with rational, explainable watertight conclusions pushed mystery to the very edges. This would especially be true of Reformed Protestantism which was born and bred within the youthful enthusiasm of modernity. So God is sussed and we have nothing new to learn. We can even judge people and condemn them because they are saying something outside of the lines and our lines have hemmed in the truth. Postmodernity give us the opportunity to celebrate what we do not know. We can be more relaxed in our doubt and confusion because we can at last realise that the opposite of faith is not doubt but knowledge and certainty.

This allows us to have a God who is beyond our small mind and finite thinking and descriptions of Him. In the Bible no one can quite describe him and we use all kinds of phrases like “it was as if”, “it was like”. God can come out of our systematic theology box and be omnipotent again.

Pastorally this helps us to deal with tragedy. In the past where you had to somehow play hermeneutical gymnastics with Scripture or ignore the sad events of life we can now sit in the whirlpool of life’s traumatic events and not have to strive for some rational solution. Where that mystery might not be a whole lot of comfort at least it releases us from the added discomfort of needing theological resolutions.

If this generation has switchfooted on the surfboard of acquiring information then we need to also realise that the old ways are not going to work in sharing Christ. Those of us who came to an understanding of faith by proclamation and objective words need to see that this generation will not be satisfied with words but will need to experience the truth. Hence I spend a lot of my year convincing students that God loves them. It is not that they haven’t heard it or even taken hold of it in some objective sermon. It is that the body Christ, that is you and me in this Church, have not helped them experience it in the relationships that they are involved in. And you can see another advantage of postmodernity right there but it is a very unnerving bothersome advantage; words are no longer enough, it has to be lived.

It also means that living it is where it is at. That in itself sets free those among us who are not so articulate with words. St. Francis of Assisi told his disciples to go and share the Gospel and if they needed to use words. Postmodernism was going down long before modernity hit us so hard. We are back there again. I sat with a man who was without trying to seeing his home being used as a refuge for his sons’ friends. All their problems came to my friend and his wife. Indeed many of them slept in their home. They were being Christ to these teenage waifs and strays and casualties of the postmodern deception that if it feels good do it and don’t care the consequences. My friend was distressed that he had not told them of Christ. His modernity mindset had made him think that he hadn’t communicated God’s love to them. Of course he had used the very vocabulary that they know best. Postmodernity makes truer than it has ever been true the idea that actions speak louder than words.

In some kind of conclusion, and postmodernity gives me permission to allow conclusions to hang, I think it is important for us to delve deep into both the worldviewsd that have crossroadsed in our time and find what we need to hold on to and write exclamations beside and what we need to jettison out of the definitions of a faith that lives outside of mindsets.


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